The Chandran Rutnam factor | Daily News

The Chandran Rutnam factor

Chandran Rutnam was born to an “artistic family”, as he puts it. His mother, Evelyn Wijeratne, had been the sister of Donald Wijeratne, the famous studio man. His father, James Rutnam, had been more tilted towards literary pursuits, an “English scholar” as Chandran describes him. He was educated at S. Thomas’ College Guruthalawa, where he came under a set of influential teachers. He remembers four names in particular: Dr R. L. Hayman, Father A. J. Foster, Bradman Weerakoon, and Duleep Kumar. “They instilled a sound set of values in me. I am grateful.”

He had been an avid film-goer from an early age. “My friends and I would watch as much as two or three movies a day.” They had seen “the good, the bad, and the ugly”, meaning whatever they could lay their eyes on. One day, while all this was going on, a man had approached his mother, asking whether she would permit him and his team to use one of her houses to shoot a film. She had flatly refused, but young Chandran, sensing opportunity, had coaxed her into giving permission.

“That man was the property master for The Bridge on the River Kwai,” he tells me, “Soon enough I talked him into giving me a job on the set. He obliged. I was hired for 100 rupees a week, a stipend even then but nothing compared to the experiences I faced.” In his own words, he “excelled at work”, and when the man had to leave the country for another film in Norway, he had readily given Chandran his job. “That’s how I became friends with William Holden and David Lean, and the rest of the cast and crew.” The friendships had survived the shooting of the film, and after it wrapped up the production manager had asked him to “look me up” should he ever come to England. “Two weeks later, I went to England. When I was in Dorset waiting at the bus-stand, I heard my name being called. I turned around. It was William Holden. He had seen me, and he now asked me to come with him to a film he was acting in.”

Holden was paired with Sophia Loren in a film called The Key, directed by Carol Reed. He persuaded the production manager to take the young Chandran in as his personal assistant. “The manager relented straight away, seeing how friendly Holden was with me, and when shooting was complete, Holden came up-to me just like that and said, ‘If ever you are in Hollywood, look me up’.” The predictable happened next: “I went to Hollywood. I looked him up. And I ended up working at Warner Bros.”

All these coincidences left an indelible mark on Chandran’s mind. He had been an assiduous worker at Warner Bros, opting to work in different departments without accepting promotions and climbing up the career ladder. “I spent time there purely because of one thing: to build my own studio in Sri Lanka. That was my dream.” He returned to his country, therefore, with his head brimming with ideas.

That was decades back. “I still don’t have a studio,” he tells me, “My dream hasn’t come true.” He is woeful. Noticeably.

So how did he turn to making films? Countless biographical sketches have gone through the same story: the friendships he struck with American directors, the story behind Asian Film Location Services, and the various films he financed and became famous for. There’s something that they have missed, I suspect, so I ask Chandran to elaborate on why he chose to become a director in his own right. “I suppose that’s to do with the kind of directors I worked with: David Lean, Carol Reed, John Boorman, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg. All of them were from the West, where the way films are conceived is totally different to the way they are here. That’s not to say I worked with ‘showbiz’ directors only, of course: I was involved in Régis Wargnier’s Indochine, which won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1993. I must have been unconsciously imbibing their views on the cinema, which is where I can’t leave out one person whose films struck me more than anyone else’s: Sergio Leone.”

This is where I get down to discussing film craft with him. “In Sri Lanka, the trend in my day was to go for the East Europeans. I didn’t follow that trend.” I ask him to explain what he thinks a good movie should be, and he replies that as long as it keeps the audience in his seat throughout its entirety, “the director has achieved what he should aim at.” The worst criticism a movie can get, according to Chandran, is that it’s boring. “Don’t ever call MY films ‘boring’. I say this for two reasons. One, no two movies should be the same. I can go on making variations on the same story, but I don’t do that. I’ve made eight films with eight different plots. Two, I always believe a good narrative should boil down to a good story. If it keeps you waiting for more even if you want to go to the bathroom, that’s enough for me.”

Hollywood’s impact on Chandran can be assessed in two ways, the way I see it. One is his devotion to efficiency and his flair for organisation, values he no doubt received in America. The other is his (justifiable) distrust over what he calls “fancy names”. When I bring up neo-realism, for instance, he pounces on me. “What do you mean by that term?” he asks me. I stammer: “depiction of poverty” - “non-professional actors” - “improvisation” - and he laughs. “I don’t subscribe to those,” he jokes, “I can’t make movies on poverty. I can’t make movies for any purpose other than entertainment.” For Chandran, entertainment is the highest justification for the cinema’s existence, a point he drives home when he tells me that “fancy names, and critics who rant and rave over them, will not save or sustain this industry.”

His biggest scorn, however, is reserved for “avant-gardism”. Again, he again asks me to offer definition. I mutter it out – “personal films,” “slipshod camera style,” “improvisation”. To these he supplies his own rejoinders – “What use is a film that elicits interest only from the director’s wife? Its appeal MUST be broad!” I put it to him that even American filmmakers were adored by some of these avant-garde directors, most prominently from the Nouvelle Vague, and he grins. “ Hitchcock was an icon to some of these writers. He didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. Even about him!” I try to retort to this, but then it occurs to me: he is correct.

And he is spot on. Movies weren’t first made to explore serious, overwrought themes, after all. They were made to entertain. Chandran’s own career confirms this: with eight films to his name, he is probably the most atonal director in our country, with each of them following unique and yet crowd-pleasing plot-lines (despite manifest variations in quality: sometimes good, at other times not so good). And he is modest about his involvement in them: “I don’t think the director is an ‘auteur’. Filmmaking is a collaborative art. My tea boy is as important as my editor. True, some are more important than others, but while on set everyone has a role to perform.”

What exactly is it that binds his films together? Certainly not their stories: as he himself has told me, he has no predilection for any one theme. To this end he differs very little from Lumet, a director who refused to bind together his films. Rutnam’s stories are all atonal. But one thing distinguishes them – an inimitable blend of Hollywood and the indigenous. If Janelaya (1990), his homage to Cornell Woolrich and classical Hollywood thrillers, seems more authentic and genuine than most other likeminded thrillers made here today, it is because of those years of training he gained in the US without losing his footing in his home country.

Mere imitation of Hollywood is not what distinguishes Janelaya today. No “on the surface” glitz and style can ever be validated in his films: it is what lies beneath them that accounts for their boldness. In Janelaya, arguably his only explicit homage to Hollywood filmmaking, a boy witnesses a murder outside his apartment window. Like the proverbial “boy who cried wolf”, however, no one believes his story. The mute murderer (played in an award winning performance by Ravindra Randeniya) and his accomplice (Anoja Weerasinghe) try to kidnap and silence him, with the result being a tense encounter atop a high-rise, uncompleted building. The story could have been embellished in a hundred different ways. But Rutnam limits it to the most essential details, sparing all frills and, in the process, heightening the tense relationship between the boy, his sceptic parents (Tony Ranasinghe and Swineetha Weerasinghe), and the two murderous neighbours. He has told me it was a remake of a Hollywood thriller (not, incidentally, by Hitchcock); on my first viewing, however, I felt no such thing.

This explains his fascination with American filmmakers, especially Spielberg and Hitchcock, the latter of whom he met as well. Perhaps an anecdote will help us here: “When I asked the Master, sitting behind a desk in a room wallpapered from ear to ear with the storyboards for his next film, as to when he would finish it, he facetiously replied, ‘I have already finished it. All that’s left to do is shoot it.’”


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